College Board reveals SAT changes: What to expect

It looks like the new SAT will be a harder and more challenging test, according to experts who have taken a look at the new test material that the College Board released today. For millions of students, the dreaded exam will also be longer.

The College Board generated huge headlines in March when it announced plans for a revamped SAT. Today's announcement provides a much more detailed look at the new exam, which will be released in the spring of 2016.

"The College Board is proposing an even more complicated test," says Miro Kazakoff, the chief executive officer at Testive, an interactive, online test-prep system developed at MIT. "There are more things being tested with the College Board wanting to integrate different types of learning."

Brian Eufinger, the cofounder of Edison Prep in Atlanta, agrees. "Since both the SAT and ACT are accepted at all universities, the new SAT's added complexity may make more students simply opt for the ACT."

College Board's take on the changes

David Coleman, who heads the College Board, said in a letter released today that the new test "will be the first admission exam that requires students to cite evidence in support of their understanding of texts in both reading and writing. There will be real-world applications of reading and math not only in science, but also in social science and career contexts involving both text and graphics."

You can see all the newly released SAT materials by visiting the College Board's DeliveringOpportunity.org.

What's ahead for the SAT

Here is a look at some of the new features, as well as potential winners and losers:

The College Board promised that the new test would be shorter, but for students who decide to complete the essay, which will now be optional, the test will be five minutes longer. The current exam is 225 minutes and the new one with the essay will be 230 minutes. It's expected that many selective schools will want students to take the essay for validation. That is, they want to make sure that the applicant can write.

The SAT's new reading section will require more advanced thinking that introduces what could be called laddered questions. In some questions, students will be asked to provide answers based on answers to previous questions. "For students who suffer from test anxiety, this will be one of the most anxiety-provoking changes," Kazakoff suggested.

SAT's new math

A big winner will be students who are good at math. Here's why: In the current test, math represents a third of the exam. The essay and the reading portion of today's SAT consume two thirds of the test that generates a maximum of 2,400 points.

With the new exam, math will represent half of the overall score; the 2016 test combines the reading and writing sections into the other half. With the new test, the maximum score will drop back down to 1,600 points with math answers responsible for half.

The SAT will no longer allow students to use calculators for part of the math test. This will be a big disadvantage for students who are dependent on calculators for even basic arithmetic.

SAT's new essay

Advanced Placement History students could benefit from the new essay, which will take 50 minutes instead of the current 25. With the revised essay, students will be asked to analyze an argument with supplied supporting documents rather than addressing a question that they could respond to with made up facts and figures. Students who take AP History could benefit since the document-based format is one they have encountered.

Anticipated reaction to the test

Debbie Stier, the author of The Perfect Score Project and a blog by the same name, predicts that students will rush to take the current SAT before the new one is released in 2016. "I just said to my daughter, 'You need to take the SAT before the College Board changes it.' I'm sure many parents are uttering the same thing."

In acknowledging that the revised test is likely to cause anxiety for families, the College Board will give students and test-prep providers a full two years to prepare for the changes. The College Board will also provide free test prep to all students through the Kahn Academy. Students will begin taking the new test in the spring of 2016.

ACT vs. SAT

The College Board is moving forward with a major overhaul of the test at a time when the ACT has been gaining market share. Higher-ed observers have widely seen the College Board's move as a reaction to this threat from its competitor.

In rolling out this new test, the College Board should give a big thank you to the ACT in helping it protect its market share. Why? Because the ACT has continued to urge schools not to superscore the ACT test. In contrast, the College Board has had no problem with colleges superscoring the SAT and most institutions have. With superscoring, colleges cherry pick the best math, reading and essay scores earned in multiple test sittings to generate the best possible score.

The SAT's main advantage going forward will remain what it is today: The vast majority of schools "superscore" the SAT, but not the ACT," Eufinger says. "Were the ACT to ever attempt to change that, the SAT market share would drop even faster than it has been. Our students' initial reactions upon receiving the new format of SAT questions on the March SAT's experimental section, and their desire to not write twice as long of an essay as they do today, would drive many of them into the arms of the ACT if such a change in superscoring recommendations for the ACT occurs."

Meanwhile, what won't change with the College Board's latest SAT version is it's basic purpose. The entire aim of the SAT is to rank students against one another and it will continue to be that way.